When The Power of Sympathy: or, The Triumph of Nature was published anonymously in Boston on January 21, 1789 the publisher, Isaiah Thomas & Company, promised that the book was, “Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life.” And sure enough the book was salted by pious admonitions to virtue and all of its sinners met disastrous ends.
But perhaps the readers snatched up copies for another reason—the plot of what is considered the first American Novel was “ripped from the headlines,” a Roman à clef on a still fresh an juicy scandal involving Perez Morton’s incestuous seduction of his sister-in-law Fanny Apthorp who became pregnant and committed suicide, while Morton escaped legal punishment. And, hey, who wouldn’t want to read about that?
The author, William Hill Brown happened to be Morton’s neighbor and knew all of the juicy details, but the case was gossip fodder in Boston. Brown was the son of a famous clock maker—the one who built the big clock for the steeple of the Old South Church. He was born to the craftsman’s second marriage in 1765 and was always sickly. He was encouraged to take up literature by his older step brother, the artist Mather Brown. He would go on to have a romantic story, Harriot, or the Domestic Reconciliation published in the first issue of Massachusetts Magazine later in the year. He would follow those up with a play based on the capture and execution of Major Andre in the Benedict Arnold West Point spy case, a series of verse fables, Penelope a comedy in West Indies style, essays, and a short second novel about incest and seduction, Ira and Isabella, all published posthumously.
Later in 1793 Brown went south to study law in a climate more suited to his health. He died of tuberculosis in Murfreesboro, North Carolina on September 2, 1793 at the age of 28. His literary reputation did not long out live him.
Of course not putting his name on that novel didn’t help. Novels, which were coming into vogue in England, were considered trifles for bored housewives and probably dangerous to their morals. The women of Boston were snatching up copies practically from the docks. Preachers thundered condemnation of them as salacious, seductive, and sinful. And of course most were, which was their appeal.
Gentlemen read lofty things—endless volumes of sermons from the leading divines, bare knuckle partisan newspapers, the classics in Greek and Latin, philosophy in French and German, and, of course, poetry both epic and lyrical. They could not deign to read such trash. But if truth be told, late at night safely locked in their studies, I suspect many more than would admit it found themselves aroused and titillated by the popular tales of lust and just retribution.
It is natural then that throughout most of the 19th Century The Power of Sympathy was popularly supposed to be the work of a woman, as were so many of the English titles reaching America shores. When Arthur Bayley, editor of The Bostonian, republished it in serial on its centennial, he attributed it to Sarah Wentworth Morton, a poetess and the wife of Perez Morton and sister of Frances Apthorp.
It did not take later scholars, however, too much digging to uncover the true author.
As for the novel as an art form, it took decades to shuck its reputation—and in the loftier precincts of the New England elite never quite did. As many remember banning books in Boston—mostly novels—was still a big deal into the 1950’s.
Slowly in the 19th Century British imports from Austin, Dickens, Thackeray, et al raised the level of respectability among the middle classes—but still mostly women. James Fennimore Cooper in America began popularizing more masculine novels as adventure stories, broadening the appeal. Serious writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville began working in the form—Hawthorne bringing a new depth to the traditional tales of the wages of sin and Melville having a hard time making a living peddling adventure yarns with, you should pardon the expression, depth. Julia Ward Howe became the first American to have a run-away, must read best seller with her novel that blended the novel’s traditional shocking themes with a searing abolitionist message.
It was not until the second half of the 19th Century that the novel really took off as a popular and literary art form in America and not until the early 20th Century that it finally blew poetry out of the water to become the pre-eminent literary form.
The book that started it all, The Power of Sympathy, being out of copyright and therefor cheap, can be found today, if you look very hard, in paperback editions, including a Penguin Classic edition. Never found any one who read it. And neither have I.